Corrected at 1:50 p.m. Sept. 1, 2021 to correct the names of Lois Fingerhut’s children.
Lois Fingerhut volunteers for her synagogue — Adas Israel Congregation — an interfaith group and two nonprofit organizations — her aim to change children’s lives for the better.
“Helping people” is not how Fingerhut, 70, describes her work, in which her passion for achieving educational equity and preventing gun violence overlap.
“I’m giving people opportunities that they deserve,” she said. “We live in a society where not everybody has access to the same opportunities. These children are in under-resourced communities for the most part.”
Fingerhut volunteers as a tutor and chair of the advisory board for Reading Partners, a national children’s literacy nonprofit with 500 tutors working virtually in the Washington area.
And she is a board member of the TraRon Center, which employs the arts to work with children and families affected by gun violence.
A sense of urgency attends her work for Reading Partners. Nationwide, 79 percent of students from under-resourced communities are reading below grade level, Fingerhut said.
“Children who are not reading at grade level by fourth grade are four times less likely to graduate on time from high school and thus their life opportunities are diminished. Literacy is the beginning of prevention of bad outcomes. As tutors we can provide that extra personal attention to get the child back on track.”
Fingerhut has motivated Adas Israel congregants to become involved with the TraRon Center and Reading Partners. She can count more than two dozen synagogue members who have become reading tutors and donors at her urging.
She serves on the Community and Public Safety Research Team for the Washington Interfaith Network, a group of synagogues and churches spanning the city. “We’re looking at various ways we can influence the city when it comes to violence, police accountability and mental health workers answering calls in addition to or instead of police,” she said.
Before retiring in 2009, Fingerhut had a long and fascinating career in the civil service. With a master’s degree in demography from Georgetown University, she worked for 31 years at the National Center for Health Statistics. She became an injury epidemiologist focusing on firearm-related deaths and poisonings. “Ten percent of childhood deaths in 1988 were due to firearm-related incidents — kids who were shot,” she said. “There were more suicides by gun than homicides back then. People had not focused on those statistics before. That made an impact.”
In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Fingerhut also conducted some of the earliest statistical research and writing about opioid deaths.
One terrifying encounter in 1985 steeled her resolve to prevent gun violence. She and her husband were held up at gunpoint for 45 minutes in their home in Northwest Washington.
“Nobody was seriously injured. My husband, Michael, was pistol-whipped, but our children, David and Josh, thank goodness, did not wake up. That really had an impact on my life,” she said.
“The gun violence problem and homicide rate anywhere is totally unacceptable. We have to get rid of guns in the streets. We have to do more about prevention. We have to get people on a trajectory to leading a productive life.”
Fingerhut grew up on Long Island in a Conservative home. Her father was involved in local government and her mother volunteered for Cancer Care, a fundraising organization. “My parents instilled incredible values in me. I’ve lived a life of privilege and the notion of giving back was important.”
Her schooling influenced her as well. In 1968, an 11th-grade English teacher introduced her to African-American literature. “I had never read Richard Wright or James Baldwin before. I can only assume going forward that I acknowledged the inequities in society and the need to do more to improve those inequities and give more people opportunities to succeed.”